Exiles - Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen’s beautiful and sad Exiles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23) is a fictional account of two historically-based stories: the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s effort to discipline his creative spirit and live a more obedient life, and a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of England in 1875. Most of the Deutschland’s passengers and crew were finally saved, but 64 died, among them five Franciscan nuns on their way to America. Hopkins had been a brilliant student at Oxford; influenced by Cardinal Newman, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest. In order to conform to the demands of his superiors, he gave up writing poetry, but the shipwreck loosened something in him. Hopkins was so moved by the victims’ deaths that he wrote a long poem (included in the back of the book). His poetry was not recognized while he was alive and only became appreciated decades after his death, when it was rediscovered by Virginia Woolf and the modernists.

My favorites of Ron Hansen’s novels are about the challenges of faith. (Mariette in Ecstasy is another.) The Exiles (Picador, $14) of the title are the great British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, banished to Ireland, and five Franciscan nuns who were sent to America to work. Hopkins, from a well-off family, was a university student at Oxford when he converted to Catholicism. A brilliant and original mind, he was out of step with the demands of strict obedience. For a long time he gave up poetry, but an 1875 freak shipwreck on the Thames that killed 44 passengers, including five nuns from Germany, loosened something in him and he wrote a long poem in honor of the lost sisters (included in the book). Two years later he wrote “a clutch of poems that were so original and are now so esteemed.” This arresting book is about the creative spirit that disturbs ordinary men.

Exiles: A Novel By Ron Hansen Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312428341
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Picador - June 23rd, 2009

Ms. Hempel Chronicles - Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum was a National Book Award finalist for Madeleine Is Sleeping, and her new book of interconnected stories is a delightful portrait of a young teacher early in her career. Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Harcourt, $23) is the perfect present for a grade-school teacher, but any reader will find “pure pleasure,” as Jonathan Franzen says, in reading about Ms. Hempel, a seventh-grade teacher who begins the year having her students read Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” She’s persistently concerned with what’s appropriate and what’s not, and not only when teaching sex education. In English class she selects Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life, an obscenity-laced memoir of a dysfunctional family, and struggles over presenting such a failed adolescent portrait. Bynum has made a wonderfully endearing character out of Beatrice Hempel.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Cover Image
ISBN: 9780547247755
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Mariner Books - September 18th, 2009

The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews

In The Flying Troutmans (Counterpoint, $24) Miriam Toews introduces one of the most appealing and irrepressible characters in recent memory: Thebes, short for Theodora.  When her mother sinks into chronic depression, Thebes calls her Aunt Hattie in Paris, begging her to come home and help her family.  What follows is one of the most heartfelt, humorous, and insightful road trips in recent memory as Thebes, her older brother Logan, and Hattie commandeer a van and search for the kids’ father, rumored to be running an art gallery somewhere in South Dakota.  These are characters that get way under your skin, and a book that keeps you smiling from start to finish.